Kids of migrant farmworkers miss out on summer learning. See how parishes are partnering to change that.

With the support of a Chicago parish, the Literacy Wagon is fighting summer learning loss among the children of migrant farmworkers in the Pacific Northwest. Each summer, migrant workers come to the Yakima Valley in Washington State to harvest apples and cherries.

migrant farm workers

These workers and their families, most of whom migrate for the summer from California, live in camps that are isolated from the surrounding communities.

migrant camp

Most of the children of these workers don’t have access to transportation to the public library to take advantage of their summer programs.

In response, the Literacy Wagon, a mobile summer education team, brings books and education to these children, helping literacy, fluency and vocabulary while their parents work in the field.

Seminarians from the Diocese of Yakima lead and organize the Literacy Wagon as part of their outreach to migrant workers.

“This program touches a lot of lives,” said Michael Kelly, a seminarian with the diocese and the lead coordinator of the Literacy Wagon.

The program supports as many as 150 children a summer. A team made up of Kelly, another seminarian named Christian Melendez, and local volunteers, librarians and teachers visit the migrant camps three days a week.

“Many kids seemed enthralled with the opportunity to read more, and would run out to greet us in the parking lot of the camp every day when we arrived,” Kelly said. “Their parents, too, would stop by the central pavilion where we were working and pick up a few books ‘para los chiquillos’ (for the young ones).”

“Being there with them was a blessing for us: they are truly faith-filled people. I only hope and pray that they learned as much from us as we did from them.”

A Church on the margins

The Literacy Wagon is part of a broad effort by the Diocese of Yakima to reach out to Catholic migrant workers where they live, and to bring the Church to them.

Bishop Joseph Tyson assigned the seminarians to run the program, hoping to foster in these future priests what Pope Francis calls a “culture of encounter.”

“We want our men to know that when people can’t come to church, we bring the church to them,” Tyson said. “We go to the margins.”

“We want to bring the Eucharist to wherever the people are.”

A Parish Partnership

The Literacy Wagon was made possible by a multi-year pledge through Catholic Extension’s Parish Partnerships program. In 2017, Saints Faith, Hope and Charity Parish in Winnetka, Illinois, made a 5-year commitment to financially support the ministry.

Fr. Marty O’Donovan, pastor of Saints Faith, Hope and Charity, visited the migrant ministry to experience first-hand the fruits of his parish’s generosity. He was reminded that “the Church isn’t just in buildings; it’s wherever people gather.”

“Church is in this pavilion here on these campgrounds where we gather around the Eucharist,” O’Donovan said. “Church is leading kids in simple games or feeding them lunch. … That’s Church.”

Parish Partnerships with Catholic Extension

Catholic Extension works with parishes, schools and religious education classes throughout the United States to benefit ministries in the poorest parts of the country. Many parishes partner with Catholic Extension for Lenten or Advent appeals, but partnerships can take on many different forms, from one-time church collections to multi-year pledges.

“Parish Partnerships are exciting because they aren’t ‘one-size-fits-all,’” said Natalie Donatello, head of the Parish Partnerships program at Catholic Extension. “We’ve found the most fulfilling partnerships are those where we work with parishes to create a custom program that is rewarding for the pastor and the parishioners, as well as for the ministry that the partnership supports.”

“Catholic Extension creates unique ties between parishes and ministries throughout the country so parishioners can see the concrete results of their support. One parish or group of parishioners can really make a difference in the life of another faith community. It’s our long-established relationships in the places that we support that makes our parish partnerships a unique and trusted resource.”

You can learn more about the Parish Partnership program here.

These relationships between Catholic Extension and the ministries that need support is what makes the difference between “helping” and “serving.” Melissa Howlett, director of religious education at SS Faith, Hope and Charity, said it’s the difference between “coming out, meeting people, being with people … as opposed to coming with our own agenda.”

“Catholic Extension does such a good job of seeing who’s already there, working very hard, and investing in those people.”

Howlett joined O’Donovan for a visit to Yakima, where she spent a day playing and reading with the children her parish supports.

Education in Action

Over the course of the summer last year, the Literacy Wagon handed out 148 books.

Kelly said, “It was my sincere pleasure to respond with an emphatic ‘yes’ when the kids would look at us with big eyes, and a handful of books, and ask, ‘Are these really for us, like … to keep … for free?’”

Volunteers from the diocese, including librarians, sisters and seminarians provided story time twice a week.

They also serve lunch as part of this ministry.

Catholic Charities also gets involved, setting up “Play and Learn” stations, which encourage the development of healthy brains and healthy bodies through play.

“We learn, but we have to have fun while we learn,” Menendez said.

Children worked on their math and motor skills by playing with blocks.

migrant farmworkers children play with blocks

Art stations helped children to identify colors and shapes, and encouraged creativity.

The seminarians and volunteers used magnets to teach problem-solving skills.

What’s next?

Once Catholic Extension’s 5-year partnership with Saints Faith, Hope and Charity is completed, the Diocese of Yakima hopes the community will take over support of the Literacy Wagon.

Meanwhile, O’Donovan will continue to foster a missionary spirit in his Illinois parish.

“The sobering part is to realize how transformative the Church is and to figure out how to help the Church to continue to provide basic needs and offer love, so these migrants know that we are all part of the Church of God,” O’Donovan said.

Catholic Extensions’ Parish Partnerships program continues to grow, seeking new opportunities to build relationships with parishes around the country who are looking to help their fellow Catholics in the poorest parts of the United States.

We’re looking for new parish partners right now. If you would like to get your parish involved, reach out to Natalie Donatello at (312) 795–6057 or

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